The Countdown Method

If this “shock and awe” hypertrophy method doesn’t stimulate some new gains in size and strength, then nothing will.

Think you’ve tried everything to get bigger and stronger? Are you currently stuck on a plateau so frustrating that you’re considering switching from lifting to sewing? Put down the thimble, kid, because countdowns are the cure.

Countdowns are a simple yet brutally effective rep technique that combines higher rep work with a series of interspersed isometric holds of varying durations. This method can be applied to a myriad of exercises for all the major muscle groups to intensify your workout.

Here’s how they work:

  • Start by choosing a set number of reps, usually somewhere between 4 and 6.

  • However many reps you started with, you’ll immediately follow that up with an isometric hold, held for an equivalent number of seconds.

  • Then you begin the countdown, all the way down to 1 rep. As an example, let’s say you started with 5 reps. The set would then look like this.

  • 5 reps

  • 5-second iso hold

  • 4 reps

  • 4-second iso hold

  • 3 reps

  • 3-second iso hold

  • 2 reps

  • 2-second iso hold

  • 1 rep

  • 1-second iso hold

Where you hold the isometric will depend on the exercise, but typically it’s at the position that puts the most stress on the muscle you’re targeting.

This is a great way to up the ante on various exercises without the need for tons of weight, so you can tax the muscles without beating up the joints. It can also make bodyweight exercises harder if you’re away from the gym and don’t have a weighted vest to add external load. Finally, it provides the benefits of isometrics without the monotony of long duration holds.

Using Countdowns as Finishers

Countdowns work well as finishers on the last set of an exercise to really blast the target muscle group. They also work well on days when you’re itching to train hard but your joints might not be feeling up to snuff, so you can get a good training effect without going super heavy.

They’re very user-friendly because they’re so simple and can be easily progressed or regressed. While it’s not a method for complete beginners, it works well for anyone with a decent strength base all the way up to most advanced lifters. All you have to do is adjust your starting point for the countdown.

For example, if you start from 3 reps and work down, that comes out to 6 total reps. If you start from 4, it’s 10 total reps. If you start from 5 it comes out to 15 reps, and starting at 6 comes to 21 reps.

I’d recommend starting at 3 or 4 and building up to 6. Once you can start from 6 and finish all the reps and all the holds, add weight. The one exception to this recommendation is grip-intensive exercises. For them, I’ll usually start adding weight once I can work down from 5, because otherwise my grip ends up giving out with the higher reps.

Due to the demanding nature of the countdown, it generally won’t take much weight to really up the ante, so start with a lot less than you think you’ll need. You can use the countdown method for a slew of different exercises, but let me throw some of my favorites at you.

Chest: Push-Up and Ring Push-Up

Here you’ll perform the isometric hold portion of the countdown at the bottom of the rep with your torso hovering just above the floor.

As a point of reference, I find that with regular push-ups I can complete the countdown starting from 7 and working down. With a light weighted vest, I usually count down from 6. However, with feet elevated ring push-ups, starting from 6 with bodyweight is about all I can handle with good form. I personally prefer ring push-ups to regular push-ups, but either is fine.

I once had the bright idea of doing 5 ring push-up countdowns (starting from 6 and going down each time) as my upper body workout for the day, and while it only took about 15 minutes, I don’t think my chest has ever been so sore in my life. The takeaway here for the sensible, smart type is that you should ease into countdowns.

Back: Chin-Up

Here you’ll do the opposite of what you did for push-ups and hold the isometric at the top of the rep. These are really tough with chin-ups, so unless you’re a chinning beast, you probably won’t be starting from 6. Somewhere between 3 and 5 is probably more realistic and even 5 is very, very challenging.

Interestingly, I’ve found with myself that starting from 5 with a 20-pound weight vest is easier than starting from 6 with just bodyweight, so that’s something to remember as you’re progressing.

Shoulders: Lateral Raise

Here you’ll hold at the top of the rep with your arms straight and parallel to the floor. These are really hard, so eat your humble pie and ditch the ego. It will feel easy for the first few mini-sets, but it’ll hit you towards the end, so be ready.

Here’s what it looks like in action. As a point of reference, I’m using a measly 10 pounds, and it’s by no means easy. If I wear my big boy pants I can do a whopping 12 pounds, but I have to cheat some of the reps at the end to finish the countdown from 6.

Quads: Front Squat

For squatting variations you’ll want to hold near the bottom of the rep, at parallel or slightly higher. These absolutely torch the quads, so even if you’re able to start from 6 and work down, you may want to ease into it at first and do a little less than you’re capable of just to get used to it.

Front squats don’t typically lend themselves very well to higher reps because it becomes hard to hold the bar, but because you’ll be using relatively light weights compared to what you’d otherwise be able to handle for regular straight sets, it works out.

Hamstrings: Glute-Ham Raise

For this one you’ll hold at the bottom of the rep with your body parallel to the floor. These are extremely challenging so they’re best reserved for more advanced lifters. Even then you’ll want to start the countdown somewhere between 3 and 4 and build from there.

Glutes: Hip Thrust

For hip thrusts you’ll want to do the isometric hold at the top of the rep, which makes for one heck of a glute contraction. If you like hip thrusts but don’t like the idea of putting a heavy barbell so close to your tackle, countdowns are a good way to challenge the muscles with significantly less load.

Bad Idea: Countdowns for Deadlifts and Rows

This isn’t an exhaustive list of what exercises you can use countdowns for, so get creative and apply them to your favorites. Just one stipulation: choose exercises that allow for a safe isometric hold. You wouldn’t want to pick something like a deadlift or a barbell row where the lower back would be at risk.

That still leaves a whole multitude of possibilities though, so use your imagination and count your way down to some new muscle.